Maverick Citizen: Op-ed
To avoid another Parktown Boys school camp tragedy, better regulation is required
A report into the drowning of Enock Mpianzi at a school orientation camp highlights the need for a complete review and overhaul of safety regulations pertaining to such camps.
Following the tragic death by drowning of Parktown Boys learner Enock Mpianzi at a Grade 8 school orientation camp at Nyati Bush and Riverbreak Lodge (Nyati camp) in North West on 25 January 2020, the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE) instructed Harris Nupen Molebatsi Attorneys (HNM) to conduct an investigation into Enock’s death.
The forensic report of the investigation was released in March after an analysis of the evidence relevant to the incident, an in loco inspection of the Nyati camp and interviews with learners, educators, the manager of the Nyati camp – HNM were not given access to the camp facilitators on duty on the day of the incident – and finally, members of Enock’s family. See here.
The report is a tragic and chilling account of the unfolding of events that led to what ought to have been the preventable death of Enock, a 13-year-old boy beginning a promising high school career.
The findings of the report are damning in respect of the different role-players whose conduct contributed to Enock’s death.
The report found that the school management and most of the educators on duty at the camp were negligent. In their capacity of in loco parentis (in the place of a parent), the educators were found to have failed in their duty to take all reasonable measures to protect the safety and the well-being of learners at the Nyati camp.
The school management and educators were negligent on the issues of roll calls and in ensuring accuracy of the roll call lists. None of the educators raised any concern at the absence of life jackets at the start of the water activity – the camp only had 12 life jackets when there were 202 learners participating in the water activity.
There was insufficient supervision of the learners during the water exercise – the learners interviewed spoke of their panic at the strength of the current and the fact that some of them could not swim, yet, when most of the learners entered the river water, none of the educators were present to supervise them.
The report suggests that it was only later in the water activity, when the headmaster noticed that the learners did not have life jackets and that the current in the river was too strong that he instructed the staff to end the water activity.
Also relevant in the finding of negligence in respect of the school was the fact that there were eight educators in total at the camp. The relevant school’s policy for sports tours referred to in the report as well as the Regulations for Safety Measures at Public Schools stipulate that there should be one staff member for every 20 learners. Because there were more than 200 students, there should have been at least 10 attentive staff members on duty.
Finally, the school was also found to be negligent for not having requisite GDE authorisation for the camp to go ahead.
The report found the Nyati management was both reckless and negligent in respect of the safety of learners during the water exercise.
One learner who was interviewed said he had called on a facilitator to help learners struggling in the river, but was told by that facilitator that she could not swim.
It is mind-boggling that facilitators responsible for the safety of learners in the water could not swim themselves. There also appear to have only been two facilitators guiding and supervising the learners. The route followed by the learners during the water exercise was dangerous, both in terms of depth and the intensity of the current on the day, yet, despite this, the camp did not think it was necessary to provide life jackets to any of the learners. Again, mind-boggling!
The report found the camp manager had deliberately misled the HNM investigation team. The report found the camp manager’s misrepresentation and presentation of false evidence to be “scandalous and offensive”. The camp manager had intimated that the water level on the day of the exercise was only a metre deep when other evidence suggested it was deeper. The camp manager stated that there were five facilitators supervising the water activity when according to the learners interviewed there were only two. The manager also misrepresented the route that the water exercise followed so as “to present a picture of the water exercise that was safer than it actually was”.
The report found the GDE to be negligent for its failure to process the application from the school for the camp.
The report ultimately recommends that the school and Nyati camp be held liable for their negligence and that disciplinary proceedings proceed against some of the educators who failed in their duty of care and GDE officials who failed to process the camp application.
The report further recommends that the GDE conduct investigations into the four previous deaths of learners by drowning at Camp Nyati. Three of these drownings occurred in the river and one in the camp pool.
Finally, the report makes some systemic recommendations that facilities that offer services to schools for school camps and other tours be known to the GDE and be regulated. Moreover, the report urged that the safety regulations enacted in terms of the Schools Act be amended in terms of “the supervision of learners and the safety measures in place in relation to participation in any kind of water activity, in order to eliminate the possibility of such a tragedy ever taking place again”.
One hopes that given the findings of joint responsibility and contributory negligence, Enock’s family is not put through the trauma of a trial but that the matter is instead settled soon so that the family can have a semblance of closure.
In the case of Komape v Minister of Basic Education, despite the government having conceded negligence for Michael Komape who drowned in a pit toilet at his school, the trial went ahead. The Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) in awarding damages to the family five years after the death of Michael found it necessary to say, “If ever a case called out for a settlement, it was this.” The same can be said in this instance.
A main concern with the report is that the systemic recommendations to prevent such an incident from ever occurring again do not go far enough. There needs to be a complete review and overhaul of safety regulations, not just at a GDE level but at a national level. Regulations must cover both public and independent schools and extend beyond water activities to all activities – including camp ethos and practices.
Moreover, the process for a school to apply to provincial authorities for a school camp or tour should be more than a tick-box exercise and ought to ensure that various processes have been complied with before consent is provided. These must include ensuring that:
- Parents are provided with sufficient information about each camp or tour as well as the activities that will occur before signing indemnity forms. Consent must be informed consent.
- Educational authorities and/or school management teams must undertake risk assessments of venues before permission is granted. This should include an inspection of facilities and equipment, an assessment of the risks involved in each activity, an understanding of the camp ethos and disciplinary practices employed at camps, as well as the suitability and qualifications of facilitators.
- Schools have protocols in place relating to the duties and obligations of educators supervising learners on school camps and the learner-educator ratios on camps.
In short, what is required are minimum standards to ensure the safety and well-being of learners when these learners are in the care of their school which assumes the role in loco parentis. Unless we take this seriously, parents will continue to fear sending their children on school camps and children will continue to be at risk. MC
- Faranaaz Veriava is the head of the Education Rights Programme at the public interest organisation, SECTION27. She is also the author of Realising the Right to Education – The Role of the Court and Civil Society which was published in 2019.